Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Sept. 10 2004 4:07 PM

Joey: How You Doin'?

Critics miss his old Friends.

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Joey (NBC). As Friends dragged itself to a long, slow death, it hardly seemed likely that critics would already be mourning the rest of the cast just a few months later. But this spinoff set in Los Angeles "feels kind of bereft," says the Los Angeles Times—"a subplot cast into the world and left searching for its main story, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the Tom Stoppard play."Joey actually gets reasonable reviews, mainly due to low expectations: No After M*A*S*H, according to the Boston Globe, it's more "like watching Friends circa season seven —decent enough, but far from great." The main problem is the absence of a credible foil: Even a "shrill and abrasive" Drea de Matteo is "flagrantly wasted," says the Washington Post. "Joey's pilot is funny," concludes Time, "but it is also sad, like a high school Mr. Popularity continuing to go to homecoming after he has graduated."

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Cellular (New Line). This thriller begins when Ryan (Chris Evans) gets a random cell-phone call from kidnapped Los Angeles teacher Jessica Martin (Kim Basinger). As Ryan goes to tortuous lengths to maintain the connection so that he can rescue Martin, the film plays "like the madly busy climax of an action film stretched out to feature length," says Entertainment Weekly. It's a litmus test of critics' tolerance for plot holes—and readers' tolerance for cell-phone puns. Fans like the Washington Post say "Cellular is always charged"—"Its adroit use of suspense makes you overlook the silliness." (Slate's David Edelstein calls the endless twists "a kind of exquisite torture machine.") But for detractors like the Chicago Tribune, it's "a wrong number" that's "based on plot hooks so silly, most of them blow up in your face."Cellular has "all the drama of a dial tone," adds New York Newsday, and the performances are—yes—"phoned in." (Buy tickets to Cellular.)

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Resident Evil: Apocalypse (Sony). Not so much a sequel as "a next game level," the second movie based on this popular video game stars Milla Jovovich as the head of a commando unit battling a zombie army. Resident Evil: Apocalypse does have its defenders—director Alexander Witt's "extremely good" timing and "first-rate craftsmanship" is "the lifeblood of the movies," says Dave Kehr in the New York Times—but most critics treat it with derision. "As video game movies go, this one contains less plot and character development than Pac-Man," snorts the Chicago Tribune; "if creative bankruptcy was legally actionable, this film would be in Chapter 11," snarls the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Even the zombies seem "antiquated and comical" compared to the "leaping, snarling fiends" of 28 Days Later, adds the Dallas Morning News: "For a brand-new movie, it feels very dated." (Buy tickets to Resident Evil: Apocalypse.)

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Criminal (Warner). More genre business in this remake of an Argentine film about two con artists (played by John C. Reilly and Diego Luna) who team up to steal an antique piece of U.S. currency. Heist enthusiasts are well-satisfied: Peter Rainier says Criminal is "taut and straightforward and a little grungy, which is how these movies ought to be," and Stephen Holden calls it "a clever and diverting caper film"—"as long as you don't think too hard about it." Those who do think about it, however, find little to engage with beyond plot mechanics. Rainier's grunge is the Onion's "plain brown-paper wrapping," concealing little more than "sub-Mamet smoke and mirrors." Meanwhile, Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum thinks the real con is that "if everything's a game, then our emotional investment is funny money." (Buy tickets to Criminal.)

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Harbor, by Lorraine Adams (Knopf). Sept. 11 threw the American novel into "utter disarray," says Time—"Tom Clancy's world view has become more plausible and more relevant than Jeffrey Eugenides'." But Harbor, a debut novel by an investigative journalist, offers a glimpse of a "new word order" with its portrayal of a Muslim immigrant community that may be engaged in terrorism. The "narrative sweeps along like a Sunday-night TV drama," thrills the Los Angeles Times, and the characters are "drawn with a stylish realism worthy of Zola." But it's the way the story is "quickened by the reflexive suspicions we've acquired, even as it challenges them," that gives it a "post-Sept. 11 sensibility," says the Washington Post; "nothing is stated; everything implied," adds the Miami Herald. Harbor is not simply journalism, though, qualifies the New York Times: Adams' "virtuoso act of the imagination" also "reminds us of fiction's deepest ambition—to understand the other." (Harbor.)

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In the Shadow of No Towers, by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon). This long-awaited return to graphic novels from the author of Maus suggests another "aesthetic approach for grappling with the enormity of 9/11," says Michiko Kakutani: A mix of styles, including Spiegelman's personal account of the tragedy and reproductions of classic Sunday comic strips that "invoke the chaos and cacophony" of that day. Most critics admire Spiegelman's work on a formal level, calling it "a wholly effective spleen-venting" that uses "the medium's past to explore new kinds of expression"—but many question his politics. Time says Spiegelman, who calls himself "'equally terrorized' by al-Qaeda and by his own government," "seems to have no interest in the anguish of others … or in why the attacks occurred." And the New York Sun employs a shaky generalization—comics "cannot represent or recreate emotion in the way that prose can"—to argue that Spiegelman has displaced his fears of terrorism and anti-Semitism onto Bush. (In the Shadow of No Towers.)

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Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury USA). Hyped as "Harry Potter for adults," this novel follows two 19th-century British wizards' attempts to revive the art of magic. Even at 800 pages, it "reads like a distillation of some far larger body of work," says the Christian Science Monitor—perhaps because of 185 dense footnotes, which Michael Dirda says "represent dazzling feats of imaginative scholarship." The New York Times detects "homages" to everyone from Dickens to Neil Gaiman, concluding that, "in this fantasy, the master that magic serves is reverence for writing." The most common reference point, however, is not Tolkien or Rowling, but Jane Austen. The Village Voice thinks Clarke's Austenesque "sherry-dry" tone "jostles disconcertingly" with the epic narrative, and Entertainment Weekly wants "hammier, sloppier, more passionate prose." But Salon says the style transcends the "long-standing divide" between England's "vigorous common sense" and "muddy, bloody, instinctual spirit of the fairies"— and so in this way, "Susanna Clarke's magic is universal." (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.)

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Heir to the Glimmering World, by Cynthia Ozick (Houghton Mifflin). A similar stylistic disconnect afflicts this formidable critic's latest novel about a refugee German scholar of an obscure Jewish sect. The plot "delivers an almost Victorian quota of cliffhangers and complexities," says New York Newsday, yet Ozick is never "a meat-and-potatoes storyteller." For gushy fans like John Leonard, the way she braids "ghostly glimmers and 'phantom eels' of thought into a single luminous lariat" is more than enough. But others take cautious shots, almost in spite of themselves. "[W]ho am I to sit in judgment of my betters?" asks the New York Observer's Daniel Asa Rose: "Even her throwaway lines have the incongruous firepower of a stun gun." Still, he finds the plot "oddly inert," and the Los Angeles Times complains that, while Ozick the critic calls the novel a process of discovery, Ozick the novelist's "experiments seem always tightly controlled—the reaction never gets out of hand, the test tube never explodes." (Heir to the Glimmering World.)

Ben Williams writes "Summary Judgment" forSlate.

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